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“Higher Criticism” in the 
Free Church Fathers 


At the outset of a case now nearly forgotten but once hotly 
debated, George Adam Smith, Professor of Old Testament at the 
Free Church College, Glasgow, gave ill-considered vent to an ill- 
phrased conviction: “We may say that Modern Criticism has won 
its war against the Traditional Theories. It only remains to fix the 
amount of the indemnity”. Though Smith, author of better things, 
went on to become principal of Aberdeen University, knight, 
moderator of his church’s assembly and a royal chaplain in 
Scotland, his remark, “a strangely infelicitous one for so brilliant a 
writer”, as Carnegie Simpson called it, served only to aggravate the 
opposition to him caused by the book in which it appeared, 
Modern Criticism and the Preaching of the Old Testament, the 
Lyman Beecher Lectures he had delivered at Yale in 1899. 
However, on a motion by Robert Rainy, seconded by James Orr, a 
process against Smith was declined by a substantial majority 
(534-263) in the General Assembly of 1902, thus foreclosing the 
possibility that a critical approach to Holy Scripture would ever 
again be matter for a heresy trial in a Scottish Church. 1 Inasmuch 
as his proved to be the last impeachment of its kind, Smith’s 
judgement, though not calculated to endear, was nonetheless 

More interesting, if not more important, is the fact that Smith 
was a Free Churchman. So indeed was every other hero-heretic who 
led in the revolution in biblical studies in Scotland in the last half of 
the nineteenth century— Marcus Dods, A. B. Bruce, and, most 
famous and most brilliant of them all, William Robertson Smith. 
Though never impeached, A. B. Davidson should also be counted 
in their number. Assistant and immediate successor to the fabled 
‘Rabbi” Duncan, he was tutor to both Smiths and along with them 
a member of “that great Scottish triad in biblical studies”, as S. A. 
Cook of Cambridge called them, “who mark an epoch in this field 
of research by their ability to carry their contemporaries with them 
over the gulf that severs earlier ‘pre-critical’ Old Testament studies 
and the attitudes and spirit that subsequently came to prevail”. 2 To 
the delight of some and the horror of not a few, the church of the 
Disruption seemed to have nurtured not only the most capable and 

1 Simpson has summarized the George Adam Smith case in The Life of Principal 
Rainy (London, 1909), ii, 269ff. 

2 S. A. Cook, The Expository Times, vol. liv., 33. 


most influential, but the most critical, of Scotland’s biblical 

Opinions differ as to the merits or otherwise of the change in 
attitudes to the Bible which thus took place. Those who in general 
approve of it will agree with J. R. Fleming that — along with the 
concomitant change in attitudes to the Westminster Confession— it 
led to “an activity of thought, study, and speculation never before 
known in the religious history of Scotland”; 3 and 1981, the 
centenary of Robertson Smith’s removal from his chair at 
Aberdeen, will no doubt bring its share of articles on Smith’s 
contribution as Semitic scholar, anthropologist, philologist, and 
martyr for academic freedom. Those who disapprove will echo 
Stewart and Cameron who, writing in 1910 in vindication of the 
continuing Free Church, declared that “the man was got out of the 
way, but the opinions of which he was the advocate remained. . . . 
The heresies of Robertson Smith . . . are the orthodoxies of the men 
who are his successors in Scotland today”. 4 But however one 
assesses the long-term effects of the change there is general 
agreement on its significance, particularly in view of the fact that it 
took place, in less than half a century, within the colleges of the 
church once led by Chalmers, Cunningham and Candlish. 

The question, now familiar, is why? Why did the church which 
prided itself on being the strictest evangelical body in Christendom 
seem to go further than any other in setting forth revolutionary 
conceptions of the Bible? 5 

The thesis of this paper is that the responsibility may partly lie 
with the Free Church Fathers themselves, not only because they 
provided the hard doctrine for their successors to react to, but 
because in their defence of the traditional theories they sometimes 
asked “critical” questions and gave “critical” answers or, what 
often has the same effect, gave inadequate answers or none at all, 
thus perhaps accelerating the very process they intended to arrest. 

There can be little doubt about where the men of 1843, the 
founders of New College, stood on the question of Scripture. 
William Cunningham, Robert Candlish, and James Bannerman, to 
name only three of the Free Church’s best apologists, staunchly 
defended what they believed to be the position of the Reformers 
and, perhaps especially, of the Westminster Confession. “The 
authority of the holy scripture”, says section IV, chapter I of the 

3 J. R. Fleming, The Church in Scotland, 1875-1929 (Edinburgh, 1933), 226. 

4 Alexander Stewart and J. Kennedy Cameron, The Free Church of Scotland, 
1843-1910 (Edinburgh and Glasgow, 1910), 63. 

5 Fleming, The Church in Scotland, 1875-1929, 9. Simpson also poses the question 
in The Life of Principal Rainy, i, 307. It is taken for granted that the answer in 
the most general terms is “because it was the Evangelicals who tended to take the 
Bible and questions concerning the Bible most seriously.” But such an answer 
only underlines the irony of the situation. 


Standards, “dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or 
church, but wholly upon God, the author thereof; and therefore it 
is to be received, because it is the word of God ; and section VIII 
declares that “The Old Testament in Hebrew ... and the New 
Testament in Greek . . . being immediately inspired by God, and by 
his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore 
authentical; so as in all controversies of religion, the Church is 
finally to appeal unto them’’. 

Although the view of Scripture outlined in the Confession 
might well serve as a statement of what the Disruption Fathers were 
defending, it has recently been maintained that they probably had 
less in common with Calvin or the Westminster Divines than with 
Robert Haldane the Congregationalist, Baptist, protagonist in the 
Apocrypha Controversy and “Founding Father of Fundamentalism 
in Scotland ”. 6 

Haldane’s position was precise and unequivocal: “the 

inspiration to which the Scriptures lay claim”, he said, “is in the 
fullest sense plenary in every part of them, extending both to the 
ideas, and to the words in which these ideas are expressed ”. 7 
Cunningham, who frequently cited Haldane, was of a like mind: 
“The Holy Spirit not merely superintended the writers so as to 
preserve them from error”, he declared, “but suggested to them 
the words in which the matter He communicated to them was to be 
conveyed ”. 8 Candlish, only slightly less precise, claimed essentially 
the same thing (“What they say, or write under this guidance, is as 
truly said and written by God, through them, as if their 
instrumentally were not used at all. God is in the fullest sense 
responsible for every word of it .”) 9 and Bannerman, whose 
lengthy volume is an exhaustive if not always lucid treatment of the 
subject, said of the Scriptures, “In the first place, they contain a 
communication of truth from God supernaturally given to man; 
and in the second place, they contain that truth supernaturally 
transferred to human language, and therefore free from all mixture 
or addition or error ”. 1 0 This may be taken as the traditional view. 

6 Andrew L. Drummond and James Bulloch, The Church in Victorian Scotland, 
1843-1874 (Edinburgh, 1975), 251-253. 

7 Robert Haldane, The Authenticity and Inspiration of the Holy Scriptures 
Considered; in Opposition to the Erroneous Opinions that are Circulated on the 
Subject (Edinburgh, 1827), 16. 

8 William Cunningham, Theological Lectures on Subjects Connected with Natural 
Theology, Evidences of Christianity, The Canon and Inspiration of Scripture 
(London, 1878), 346. 

9 R. S. Candlish, Reason and Revelation (London, 1860), 23. Reason and 
Revelation is a collection. Its first two chapters “The Authority and Inspiration 
of the Holy Scriptures” and “The Infallibility of Holy Scripture” were 
delivered as lectures under the same titles in 1851 and 1857 respectively and both 
are available in pamphlet form. 

10 James Bannerman, Inspiration: The Infallible Truth and Divine Authority of the 
Holy Scriptures (Edinburgh, 1865), 149-150. 


The traditionalists’ concern to make clear what their doctrine of 
inspiration was was balanced by a concern to make clear what it 
was not. It was not, for one thing, a theory of how the Scriptures 
were inspired. Candlish spoke for them all when he said: “The fact 
of inspiration may be proved by Divine testimony, and accepted as 
an ascertained article of belief, while the manner of it may be 
neither revealed from heaven, nor within the range of discovery 
upon earth”. 11 It was not, for another thing, a theory which 
eliminated the human element in Scripture. All agreed that the 
Bible, inspired even in the language it employs, is nonetheless the 
creation of men, marked, as Bannerman put it, “by the human 
individuality that distinguishes the writing of any man who thinks 
and writes with freedom and earnestness in his own character and 
without any disguise”. 1 2 Talk of mechanical dictation on the one 
hand or degrees of inspiration on the other made up no part of their 
case. They explicitly repudiated both, thus opposing those who 
made too little of human authorship as well as those who made too 
much of it. 1 3 Their doctrine was neither more nor less than that the 
Bible is patently but inexplicably both human and divine. 

Such was the theory that all of its defenders referred to as the 
doctrine of plenary inspiration: Haldane called it verbal or plenary 
inspiration, using the terms interchangeably, and Cunningham, 
more dogmatically, maintained that “in fairness the word plenary 
should be reserved for the view which asserts the entire verbal 
inspiration”. 1 4 

The conspicuously careful language, absent even from the 
Confession of Faith, can best be appreciated in light of the 
opponents against which it was directed. By 1850, the fathers felt, 
the word inspiration had been so abused that it could no longer be 
assumed that it meant what it had always meant; it could no longer 
be left unattended by qualifying adjectives. Candlish even had 
second thoughts about the word inspiration itself. 

“I intend, indeed, [he said] rather to avoid the use of this 
word inspiration; not because I consider it unsuitable— it is 
the right word — but because it has been, I fear I must say 
disingenuously, perverted from its recognized meaning, as 
expressive of that divine superintendence of the process of 
revelation which secures infallibly the truth and accuracy of 

11 Candlish, Reason and Revelation, 22. 

12 Bannerman, Inspiration, 418. 

13 The potentially awkward relationship between the traditionalists and some of the 
esteemed older writers who may have slipped into “one-sided and extreme 
modes of expression” in discussing inspiration is illustrated by Andrew 
Crichton’s comments on John Owen, in “The Purpose and Form of Holy 
Scripture”, Christianity and Recent Speculation: Six Lectures by Ministers of 
the Free Church, with a preface by Robert S. Candlish (Edinburgh, 1866), 1 16. 

14 Cunningham, Lectures, 345. 


what is revealed, and made to signify the mere elevation, 
more or less, of human, and therefore fallible, capacity or 
faculty ”. 15 

As Candlish’s remarks indicate, the main enemy was not the out 
and out attackers of Scripture. It was those — Lowth and 
Dodderidge, for example, in the eighteenth century and Hill, Pye 
Smith and Henderson in the nineteenth — who, while professing to 
be the Bible’s defenders, effectually undermined its authority, 
either by holding that the Bible is inspired, but only in part, or by 
claiming that its inspiration is the inspiration of the writers rather 
than of the writings, “the quickening of spiritual thought and 
feeling from within”, as Bannerman described it, “not the 
presentation of supernatural truth from without. ...” 1 6 In a word 
what the defenders of .the older view opposed was subjectivism, in 
particular that form of subjectivism which found expression in 
theories of partial inspiration. It was not the later and full-blown 
criticism of Graf and Wellhausen, cold and clinical, everywhere 
laying laboratory hands on Moses and Isaiah, that drew their fire. 
It was almost the opposite. It was the spirit of Coleridge and 
Schleiermacher, “spiritual” or pietistic, pretending to a fuller 
understanding of Scripture while it substituted experience for truth. 

The older school, indeed, considered themselves the upholders, 
not only of the right doctrine of inspiration, but of doctrine in 
general. They resisted any attempt to ground Christianity in “blind 
feelings”. Christian belief, for them, had to do with the 
comprehension of truths, not with intuition or what Candlish 
described as “a subtle sort of refined mysticism.” Theirs was a 
theology of cognition: they were, in a sense, as rational as the 
rationalists . 1 7 

The irony is that in the battle for the Bible it may have been 
precisely the rational character of orthodoxy which forced it to 
open up gaps in the line which it could neither anticipate nor close. 
As it attempted to defend itself — for apologetic is inextricably 
bound up with dogmatic religion — it also exposed itself, preparing 
if not encouraging, the counter-attack. Any general survey of the 
defences of Scripture by the early Free Church divines will plainly 
show what they were up to: they intended simply to expound and 
thereby safeguard what one review of Bannerman’s book called 
“the more rigid doctrine of inspiration ”. 18 A closer look will 

15 R. S. Candlish, Reason and Revelation, 54. 

16 Bannerman, Inspiration, 142. 

17 P ut , of . coul ' se neither are some kinds of rationalism incompatible with some 
kinds of subjectivism. Schleiermacher was perhaps the leading proponent of an 
essentially ann-rational subjectivism which in its approach to Scripture was 

rationalistic . For a useful comment on this see John Baillie, The idea of 
Revelation in Recent Thought (London, 1956), 10-15. 



reveal, however, not only a surprising variety of opinion on issues 
of fundamental importance, but also more than might be expected 
of the kind of argument that is either critical in itself or tends to 
invite critical analysis. A few illustrations will have to suffice to 
make the point. 

Candlish: Specific Texts, Issues and Difficulties 

Candlish’s commentary on Genesis is an especially good 
illustration of how difficult it is to guard the treasures of antiquity 
that they be not lost, as Rabbi Duncan admonished, without being, 
in his words, “bigotedly conservative— i.e. blind to progressive 
light”. 19 The commentary was first published in 1843 in three 
volumes. It was revised and issued again in two volumes in 1868 
under a slightly different title. A third edition, essentially the same 
as the second, was offered in one volume in 1884. The differences 
between the editions, especially between the first and second, 
though slight, reflect somewhat the changing attitudes in biblical 
scholarship, albeit less of the changes in science than one might 
expect, considering that Origin of Species as well as Essays and 
Reviews had created its sensation in the interim. Toward scientific 
and biblical scholarship there is mixed feeling on Candlish’s part. 
Both, the commentary suggests, he might heartily endorse, if 
somehow he could be persuaded that they were completely 

The object of the first two chapters of Genesis, Candlish 
maintained in all the editions including the first, is not scientific but 
religious. “Hence it was to be expected that, while nothing 
contained in it could ever be found really and in the long run to 
contradict science”, he said, “the gradual progress of discovery 
might give occasion for apparent temporary contradictions. The 
current interpretation of the Divine record, in such matters, will 
naturally, and indeed, must necessarily, accommodate itself to the 
actual state of scientific knowledge and opinion at the time.” 30 
The essential facts of the account, he claimed, are the recent date 
assigned to the existence of man on the earth, the previous 
preparation of the earth for his habitation, the gradual nature of 
the work of creation and the distinction and succession of days 
during its progress. These, he affirmed, cannot be impugned by any 
scientific discoveries — Darwin notwithstanding. At the same time, 
he suggested, a very long history may have preceded that given in 
Genesis. “What countless generations of living organisms may 

18 The Bibliotheca Sacra, vol., xxii. (Andover, 1865), 352. 

19 William Knight, Colloquia Peripatetica: Notes of Conversations with John 
Duncan (Edinburgh, 1879), 9. 

20 R. S. Candlish, The Book of Genesis Expounded in a Series of Discourses, 
2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1868), i, 19. 


have teemed in the chaotic waters or brooded over the dark abyss”, 
he said, “it is not within the scope of the inspiring Spirit to tell. 
There is room and space for whole volumes of such matter before 
the Holy Ghost takes up the record”. 2 1 

The themes which dominate Candlish’s discussion of the 
creation narrative are that it is a figurative account and that it is 
therefore a partial account, the full meaning of which will be 
revealed only when the times of the restitution of all things have 
arrived. “The exact literal sense of much that is now obscure or 
doubtful”, he averred, “as well as the bearing and importance of 
what may seem insignificant or irrelevant, will then clearly 
appear.” 2 2 

Candlish’s emphasis on “the moral and spiritual aspect of this 
sacred narrative” is conspicuous. He took it as a description of the 
original relation of man to his Maker and a figurative 
representation of his restoration from moral chaos to spiritual 
beauty. 23 One of his major concerns was to restore to the story 
something of what he considered its essential character. “This 
divine record of creation”, he judged, “remarkable for the most 
perfect simplicity, has been sadly complicated and embarrassed by 
the human theories and speculations with which it has unhappily 
become entangled.” 2 4 

Clearly Candlish did not regard Genesis 1 and 2 as primarily 
scientific or historical. Yet in no sense was he denying the 
inspiration of the Scriptures by saying so. On the contrary, he was 
attempting to safeguard it by putting it out of the range of critical 
attack altogether; for if Genesis was not intended to be history or 
science then it is not liable to the charge that it contradicts the 
evidence of historical or scientific investigation — an approach, 
incidentally, which is very like the modern one. 25 In the prefatory 
note to the 1843 edition, Candlish expressed the hope that “by the 
blessing of God, the tendency of what follows is not to raise 
speculative questions, but to cherish a spiritual and practical frame 

21 ibid. 

22 Ibid., 20. 

23 Ibid., 19. 

24 Ibid . , 18. 

25 Marcus Dods, accused in 1890 of subverting the doctrine of inspiration, wrote a 
commentary which in some ways is strikingly like Candlish’s and in it said of the 
compiler of Genesis: “He does describe the process of creation, but he describes 
it only for the sake of the ideas regarding man’s relation to God and God’s 
relation to the world which he can thereby convey. Indeed what we mean by 
scientific knowledge was not in all the thoughts of the people for whom the book 
was written. The subject of creation, of the beginning of man upon earth was 
not approached from that side at all; and if we are to understand what is here 
written we must burst the trammels of our own modes of thought and read these 
chapters not as a chronological, astronomical, geological, biological statement 
but as a moral or spiritual conception”. The Book of Genesis (London, 1889)! 


of mind, in the devout study of the Word of the living God”. 2 6 He 
wanted to steer clear of any confrontation with allegedly hostile 
science, no doubt because he thought it unnecessary or 
unprofitable or unjustified. 

Candlish may or may not have successfully avoided a conflict 
with science. He found it much more difficult to avoid a conflict 
with biblical criticism. In the revision of 1868, in an appendix 
“some may think might perhaps be more properly placed as a 
preface or introduction”, Candlish evidently felt himself obligated 
to remark on current trends. Moses, it seemed to him, had fared 
very much as Homer had fared: Genesis and the Iliad had both 
been torn to shreds and “parcelled out among a motley and 
miscellaneous crowd of unknown documents and imaginary 
authors”. 27 Candlish saw multi-author theories as “an appeal 
from word-catching and hair-splitting analysis” and gave his own 
judgement that Genesis had “the stamp and impress of an 
undivided authorship”. 2 8 At the same time, he urged that his view 
was not inconsistent with there being many traces in Genesis, both 
of earlier documents or traditions, and of later editions and 
revisions. From the very nature of the case, he argued, it must be 
so: it would be absurd to suppose that learned and inspired authors 
would not take advantage of the material, legendary, lyrical, and 
monumental, at their disposal. 29 Candlish therefore agreed with 
the critics, but only to a point: there is evidence in Genesis of 
“source material” — common sense would tell us that there might 
be — but a documentary hypothesis in anything like its more 
advanced formulations had overtones which were for him quite 

Candlish’s handling of Genesis nicely illustrates the problem 
posed for those defending the traditional view of Scripture, the 
problem namely, that it could not be defended apart from a 
discussion of difficulties for which the solutions being offered were 
considered inadequate or destructive and yet for which the 
defenders themselves, because they had not faced them before, had 
no perfect answers either. Those who took a softer line on 
inspiration managed to avoid such dilemmas. They relied more on 
experience and less on doctrine. Their style of piety decreased the 
urgency to give right answers to theological questions and increased 
their freedom to criticise the Bible.’" In that sense it was, 

26 R. S. Candlish, Exposition of the Book of Genesis, 3 vols. (Edinburgh, 1843), 
vol., i, p. iv. 

27 R. S. Candlish, The Book of Genesis Expounded in a Series of Discourses, ii, 

28 Ibid., 350. 

29 Ibid., 350-351. 

30 See for instance Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Aids to Reflection and Confessions of 
an Inquiring Spirit (London. 1893), 333ff. 


legitimately, a way out of the difficulties and no doubt attractive 
partly for that reason. But their subjectivism is what Candlish and 
the others opposed in defence of an objective word of God. 

Nonetheless there are hints here and there that Candlish 
himself, thoroughly rational as he was, may have been guided from 
time to time, even in argument, by something as close to feeling as 
it was to reason . 31 An example is his discussion of the self- 
evidencing inspiration of the Bible. “To a mind rightly exercised 
upon them”, he said, “and above all, to a heart influenced by the 
same Holy Spirit who breathes in them, the Scriptures evidence 
themselves to be of divine authority and divine inspiration ”. 3 2 As 
any son simply knows that a letter is from his father, Candlish 
urged, so the child of God feels the divine impress of Scripture. It 
breathes all through, even in the geneologies of Matthew and Luke 
and “the dry catalogue of names in the tenth chapter of 
Nehemiah ”. 3 3 

“My own actual hand-writing may not be on the page: 
sickness, or some casualty, may have made an amanuensis 
necessary. But my boy knows my letter nevertheless— knows 
it as all my own— knows it by the instinct, the intuition of 
affection, and needs no other proof ”. 34 

To his “cold, cynical, hypercritical schoolmates” who might 
question what he sees of his father in “that barren itinerary with 
which the letter begins— the dry list of places he tells you he has 
gone through; or in that matter-of-course message about a cloak 
and some books with which it ends”, the boy would reply: 

“You may be too knowing to sympathize with me, ... but 
there is enough in every line here to make me know my 
father’s voice; and if he has been at pains to write down for 
my satisfaction the names of towns and cities and men — if he 
does give me simple notices about common things, I see 
nothing strange in that. I love him all the better for his 

31 According to Robert Rainy, Candlish was a “remarkable dialection” with an 

aptitude for dogma, and more particularly for dogmatic precision.” On the 
matter of inspiration however: “He manifested clearly enough a distaste about 
minutiae . . . but he did so in the interest of a high view of inspiration. He felt 
himself sitting at the feet of a divine informant, and listening to a divine voice 
Ihe tracts somewhat occasional in their character, which he issued on this 
SU u bJ t Ct ’ a . V 1 , ! l for their object to clear away misunderstandings or perplexities 
which might hmder others from doing the same.” In Rainy’s chapter on 

Snhn h r„ a h ' I?!'" William Wilson, Memorials of Robert Smith Candlish 
(tclin burgh 1880), 604. Rainy s own views are set out in his The Bible and 
Criticism (London, 1878). 

32 R. S. Candlish, Reason and Revelation 40 

33 Ibid. 

34 Ibid . , 41. 


kindness and condescension; and whatever you may 
insinuate, I will believe that this is all throughout his very 
letter, and that he has a gracious meaning in all that he writes 
to me in it, however frivolous it may seem to you ”. 35 

It is the language of genuine devotion and it rings true, but it is 
hardly an argument of the sort that Candlish ordinarily professes to 
require. Moreover— and this is the point— it is precisely the sort of 
argument that Candlish generally opposes . 36 The exact phrases in 
fact — instinct and intuition— which he condemns elsewhere, he 
approves here. It is true that what Candlish condemns is inspiration 
regarded as intuition and what he approves is inspiration 
recognized by intuition and that the two things must not be 
confused; nevertheless, even his use of such language seems 
somehow inconsistent. The Bible, Candlish argued, must never be 
thought of as the product merely of heightened instinctive or 
intuitional powers. And yet, how do we know it to be the word of 
God?— “by the instinct, the intuition of affirmation” Candlish 
answered, and we need no other proof. There is in Candlish more 
of mixed feeling, if not theological ambiguity, than perhaps he was 
aware of, which only serves to underline the complicated nature of 
the case and the state of the argument at the time. 

Candlish’s use of imagination, persuasive as rhetoric but not 
convincing as argument, is illustrated in his defence of the lack of 
uniformity between the gospel narratives, a problem often alluded 
to by opponents of full inspiration. His argument consists in a 
supposition. Suppose, Candlish suggested, that Christ, during His 
lifetime or after His resurrection, wanted four of His followers to 
write down, separately and independently, what they remembered 
of His sayings and doings and then to bring their several accounts 
to Him for revision and correction. The knowledge that what they 
wrote was to be submitted to their Master’s eye, Candlish 
contended, would be a stimulus to all of them to do their best; it 
would also give them boldness and freedom in executing their task. 
In other words, the assurance that Christ would be editing their 

35 Ibid., 41-42. On almost every important issue Candlish and Coleridge were 
opposed, but on this they voice a similar sentiment. “If in the holy men thus 
actuated [by the Holy Spirit] all imperfection of knowledge, all participation in 
the mistakes and limits of their several ages had been excluded’’, Coleridge said, 
“how could these Writings be or become the history and example, the echo and 
more lustrous image of the work and warfare of the sanctifying Principle in 
us? — If after all this, and in spite of all this, some captious litigator should lay 
hold of a text here or there — St Paul’s cloak left at Troas with Carpus, or a verse 
from the Canticles, and ask: ‘Of what spiritual use is this?’ — the answer is 
ready: — It proves to us that nothing can be so trifling as not to supply an evil 
heart with a pretext for unbelief”. Aids to Reflection and Confessions of an 
Inquiring Spirit, 336-337. 

36 See especially Reason and Revelation, 16ff. 



work, rather than hamper them, would release them from the fear 
of not giving verbatim every sentence of a discourse, or not stating 
every particular about a miracle; furthermore, they would not be 
bothered about apparent differences between their accounts. Each 
would follow his own bent and there would be “a free play and 
exercise of their faculties and feelings ”. 37 

And what will Christ do with the four manuscripts submitted to 
Him? Will He retrench here and enlarge there, cut, alter and 
amend? He will not, Candlish maintained. 

“He will leave the memoirs in the freedom and freshness of 
their original spontaneous simplicity; only taking care that 
there is nothing in them for which he would not be willing to 
stand voucher. He prefers their easy and artless reminiscence 
to an absolutely perfect history, as giving really a truer and 
more life-like representation of himself. He suffers them to 
go forth under his sanction, although he quite well foresees 
that the different ways in which they tell the story of his life 
may give rise to questions that could only be solved by a fuller 
and more exact narrative than any one of all the four 
professes to be ”. 3 8 

Candlish may very well be right, but what are the implications 
of this kind of argument for his case over-all? Even if easy and 
artless reminiscences do give, in some sense, a truer representation 
than absolutely perfect history, where does Candlish’s saying so 
leave his doctrine of inspiration? He has practically invited attacks 
on the historicity of the Gospels— or at least on the necessity of 
historical accuracy in them . 39 

Here, as with Genesis, Candlish was facing what Cunningham 
referred to as “the one grand difficulty” attaching to the subject of 
inspiration, indeed to all theological speculation, “the difficulty, 
viz., of explaining how it is that God and men are combined or 
united, as in some sense they are, in the productions of man’s 
actions ”. 40 That he did not solve it is no condemnation, only a 
forceful reminder of how exasperatingly elusive solutions to it are. 

Cunningham: Words 

Cunningham had not solved it either, as at least one of the 

37 Ibid., 78. 

38 Ibid., 79. 

39 There is an affinity between Candlish and Marcus Dods on this issue as well. 
Although it is impossible to claim that everything recorded in the Gospels 
happened precisely as related, Dods maintained, still there is no doubt that “the 
Gospefs present us with a lifelike portrait of Christ and with so accurate a report 
of His words that we can form a true estimate of His teaching”. The Bible • Its 
Origin and Nature (Edinburgh, 1905), 209-210. 

40 Cunningham, Lectures, 403. 


reviews of his Lectures found it fairly easy to show . 41 More 
important, however, is the overall character of his approach to 
Scripture. While he was in one sense the most “critical” of all the 
apologists, he was at the same time the most opposed to critical 

Cunningham emphasised the verbal nature of inspiration. His 
frequent use of the complete phrase “verbal plenary inspiration” is 
conspicuous and distinguishes him from his allies. “God has given 
us no certain means of knowing his will but from his word”, he 
declared, “and no certain means of knowing the meaning of his 
word, but from an investigation of the actual statements which it 
contains”. 4 : Whatever else we may do in preparing to expound the 
Scriptures we must always come back to the actual words of 
Scripture: “There is nothing above or beyond them, there is 
nothing beside or apart from them, that conveys to us authentically 
or authoritatively the will of God for our salvation. The written 
word must be at once our starting-point and our goal .” 43 

The Scriptures have but one sense, Cunningham maintained, 
and that one sense can be discovered only by investigating the 
literal and grammatical meaning of Scripture’s words exactly as 
they stand . 44 He therefore authorized the grammatical-historical 
method — as long as by it was meant that “the statements of 
Scripture are to be interpreted according to the ordinary rules of 
philology and grammar; and that the actual meaning of the 
vocables, and the actual import of the phrases and constructions 
occurring in the books of Scripture, are to be ascertained by 
testimony as matters of historical fact ”. 45 

The caveat is significant, for Cunningham, like Candlish, was 
caught between recommending a technique, even a modern 
technique, and protesting against the use to which he felt it was 
being put. While he approved in general of handling Scripture 
according to its “historical sense”, he warned that the phrase was 
often used by German writers to indicate a principle which 
undermined the authority of Scripture, the principle namely, that it 

41 The liberal American journal Bibliotheca Sacra, which regarded the volume as 
“a specimen of the theological methods which were sanctioned by the Free 
Church during the first year of its existence”, pointed out that Cunningham’s 
claim that the actual words of Scripture were inspired as much as its message was 
modified somewhat by his claim that “every portion of God’s word is also in 
some sense man’s word, as it has all passed through some man’s mind, and been 
brought in some way into contact with his faculties and with his faculties in 
exercise”. The Bibliotheca Sacra, vol., xxxi. (Andover, 1878), 783-787. See 
Lectures, 374. It is interesting too that of all the topics Cunningham discusses in 
his Lectures, Bibliotheca Sacra select his treatment of inspiration as an 
illustration of “Dr Cunningham’s general habit of reasoning”. 

42 Cunningham, Lectures, 582. 

43 Ibid. 

is not the meaning of the discourses of Christ as we have them that 
is to be sought, but the meaning His hearers were likely to attach to 
them. On that doubtful principle, Cunningham went on, the 
Germans then try to find out historically, “though with very scanty 
evidence, for none are more credulous than infidels”, what were 
the prevalent notions on the subjects spoken of and make these, or 
their own impressions regarding them, and not the grammatical 
meaning of the words, the standard of interpretation . 4 6 

Cunningham’s practice was altogether consistent with his 
theory: the doctrine of the verbal inspiration of Scripture dictated 
the closest possible scrutiny of every word of Scripture, and 
nothing less than “a deliberate and persevering investigation of the 
appropriate evidence according to distinct and well-established 
rules” would do. His method was not far removed from that of the 
critics. He differed from them only in his assumptions and 
therefore in his conclusions. 

The continuity and the discontinuity between Cunningham’s 
and later views may be seen by comparing Cunningham’s with 
remarks made by William Robertson Smith in a lecture delivered at 
the opening of the Free Church College in Aberdeen. 

“The higher criticism does not mean negative criticism [Smith 
maintained]. It means the fair and honest looking at the Bible 
as a historical record, and the effort everywhere to reach the 
real meaning and historical setting, not of individual passages 
of the Scripture, but of the Scripture Records as a whole; and 
to do this we must apply the same principle that the 
Reformation applied to detailed Exegesis. We must let the 
Bible speak for itself. Our notions of the origin, the purpose, 
the character of the Scripture books must be drawn, not from 
vain traditions, but from a historical study of the books 
themselves. This process can be dangerous to faith only when 
it is begun without faith— when we forget that the Bible 
history is no profane history, but the story of God’s saving 
self-manifestation ”. 4 7 

Both Cunningham and Smith wanted detailed exegesis as the 
method of reaching the real meaning, not of isolated passages, but 
of the Bible as a whole, and both insisted that any approach to 
Scripture would be dangerous if it was not made as to the word of 
God. What divided them was that what constituted isolating a 
passage for Smith was taking it out of its historical context while 
what constituted isolating a passage for Cunningham was taking it 
out of its theological context. For Smith, the Bible was “the 

46 Ibid., 588-589. 

47 ^dir^rgh^h^S^O) 11 29O0 1 ’ “ WhaI Hist ° ry Teaches us to Seek in ‘he Bible”. 


story of God’s saving self-manifestation”; for Cunningham “It 
was one great leading design of God, in inspiring and communi- 
cating his word, to make known to men some great fundamental 
views of doctrine and duty ”. 48 The difference is between God 
revealing Himself in His acts and God revealing His will in His 
declarations. It might be argued that the differences between 
Cunningham and Smith in their approach to the Bible would be 
negligible if the difference in their view of the Bible was not 

It is only a little surprising, therefore, that Cunningham had 
misgivings about “lower” criticism as well as “higher” criticism. 
The mere settlement of the text, “the decision of all questions 
about the reading for the purpose of exhibiting the sacred text as 
nearly as possible as it came from the hands of its original 
authors”, as he described the “lower”, was for him important, but 
only insofar as it paved the way for interpretation. What mattered 
was “the investigation of the sense and meaning” of Scripture’s 
statements, that is, hermeneutics or exegesis . 49 His belief that 
every word of Scripture had been given by God should not be 
taken, then, as an ultimate concern even for the purity of the text. 
A lot of the work done in trying to ascertain it, he felt, was 
insignificant . 50 Although he believed it was “necessary and 
imperative that ministers should acquire some knowledge of the 
leading points involved in it”, he also believed that the subject was 
“not one of very great practical importance, so far as concerns the 
actual discovery of the mind and will of God from his word ”. 5 1 

Cunningham fits least tidily into the thesis that the views of the 
Free Church Fathers embody a kind of embryonic criticism. What 
he shared with the critics was a conviction that every passage in the 
Bible ought to be analysed with the utmost care; but he covered this 
with an equally firm conviction that the results of such analysis 
could not be inconsistent with “the general scheme of truth taught 
in the Bible ”. 52 He was unequivocally opposed to criticism as he 
understood it. He described it as carried on by German writers, 
“some of whom have brought to this work a large amount of 
learning, accompanied generally with a miserable lack of common 
sense and sound logic ”. 5 3 And in what he labelled “the thorough 
and daring infidelity of German rationalists”, he nearly 
paraphrased the views for which George Adam Smith was 
impeached less than sixty years later: 

48 Cunningham, Lectures, 597. 

49 Ibid., 545. „ 

50 He cited Griesbach’s Greek Testament. Although he believed it superior to the 

Textus Receptus, he considered it overdone. Ibid., 549. 

51 Ibid., 550. 

52 Ibid., 596-597. 

53 Cunningham, Lectures, 422. 


“It is a favourite idea of the German rationalists, and is 
another specimen of their infidelity, that the system of 
doctrine which is contained in the Bible is capable of 
progressive and indefinite improvement; that as it stands in 
the Bible it is mixed up with many crude and ill-digested 
notions, such as might be expected to proceed from men who 
lived in a comparatively rude and uncultivated age, but that, 
with the march of intellect and the progress of literature and 
science, men may be expected to be better able to separate the 
chaff from the wheat, to throw off what savours of an 
uncultivated age and is traceable merely to local or temporary 
influences, and to bring out fully from the Scriptures a system 
of pure and rational Christianity”. 5 4 
Cunningham’s lectures were delivered in 1843 but were not 
published until 17 years after his death in 1861. Thomas Smith, 
their editor, thought it necessary, therefore, to justify their issue in 
the light of the changes in theology that had taken place in the 
interval. “It is quite true that if Dr Cunningham had been alive 
now, and had been writing on the same subjects”, Smith wrote in 
the preface, “his manner of treating them would have been 
somewhat different from that in which he treated them five-and- 
thirty years ago”. 55 The justification, one senses, was partly an 
expression of regret that the lectures were being published at all, a 
regret that A. B. Bruce, though “with respect amounting to 
veneration for an old teacher,” did not fail to express very frankly 
indeed. 56 

Smith’s comment is worth pondering nonetheless, especially in 
regard to the debate over inspiration. Smith did not speculate on 
how the Lectures might have been modified, but it is difficult to 
imagine Cunningham’s view of Scripture being very much altered 
by the scholarship of the thirty-five years between their delivery 
and their publication. It seems more likely that had he lived 
Cunningham would have been found as near the front of 
traditionalist ranks in 1878 as he was in 1843. His is perhaps the 
tightest defence of inspiration of any of the Free Church Fathers. 

54 Ibid., 253. Compare this with, for instance, Smith’s statement to the Sub- 
Committee of the College Committee of the United Free Church of Scotland, 
Appendix II to the Special Report of the College Committee to the General 
Assembly of 1902, pp. 10, 11. 

55 Cunningham, Lectures, p. vii. 

56 Whether this work should ever have been published may be a matter of 
question, but certain it is, it should have been published long ago, or not at all. 
We presume it owes its appearance to supposed bearings on present controversies 
within the church of which the author was a distinguished ornament — a motive 
for publication which the outside would have no concern, and which to many 
within the pale may appear to degrade the work into the position of a 
controversial pamphlet.” The British and Foreign Evangelical Review vol 
xxviii. (London, 1878), 489-490. 


Candlish and Cunningham defended the same rigid doctrine of 
inspiration, but in different circumstances, by different means and 
with different effects. Candlish wrote no treatise on inspiration. 
His remarks on the subject were often first delivered in lectures to 
non-theological audiences. He tended to be un-systematic. He 
allowed himself the freedom to see each problem in its own 
particularity, demanding its own solution. His solutions were 
sometimes speculative, imaginative and tentative and his 
definitions loose . 5 7 Where his argument was most winsome it was 
often most ambiguous. Cunningham was much less ambiguous. 
His Lectures were originally given to ministerial students and were 
set therefore in a theological and apologetical context. He saw 
every difficulty in relation to what he believed to be the Bible’s own 
dogmatic system. While his argument was consistent it was not 
always convincing, perhaps because it gave nothing away. 

Bannerman: “Retreat” 

It is interesting in this connection that Cunningham, on his 
death bed, committed his lectures to James Bannerman, his 
successor at one remove in the second chair of Apologetics at New 
College , 5 8 whose views of Scripture, according to Drummond and 
Bulloch, constitute “a cautious retreat from an untenable 
position ”. 59 Bannerman, they claim, “had clearly dissociated 
himself from the theory of verbal inspiration as stated at the 
opening of New College, and had prepared the way for the full 
employment of Biblical Criticism by Free Church scholars ”. 60 

The doubts about Bannerman’s loyalty to the older view derive 
primarily from his assertion that the doctrine of verbal inspiration 
is only a theory, without, strictly speaking, biblical support. What 
he said was this: 

“Although instances can be pointed out in which it were 
difficult to deny, in consistency with any fair system of 
intepretation, that Scripture warrants the idea of verbal 
revelation, yet it would be equally difficult to prove that in all 

57 For instance, in the course of explaining what he understood by the term 
inspiration, Candlish said, “it is of very little consequence whether you call this 
verbal diction or not. It is equivalent to verbal dictation, as regards the reliance 
which we may place on the discourse, or the document, that is the result of it”. 
Reason and Revelation, 23. 

58 Originally the second Divinity chair, then Apologetics, Christian Ethics, and 
Pastoral Theology, now Christian Ethics and Practical Theology. 

59 Drummond and Bulloch, The Church in Victorian Scotland 1843-1874, 263. 
Bannerman (and James Buchanan to whom, along with Bannerman, 
Cunningham had committed his manuscripts) did not live long enough or did not 
think it feasible to publish the Lectures. In any case, the job fell, at Mrs 
Cunningham’s request, to Smith. 

60 Ibid., 264. 


cases words were the medium of communication. In the 
matter of inspiration (not revelation), the proof that it was 
always carried on through the instrumentality of language is 
still less decisive, and with respect to both, it would be to limit 
the power of God in a manner both unwarranted and 
presumptuous, to imagine or assert that He cannot employ 
other instrumentality to effect the end in view ”. 6 1 

Bannerman maintained that “the connection between human 
thought and language is not of that invariable or essential kind to 
justify us in saying that there can be no avenue to the mind except 
through words, and no means by which its ideas may be guided to 
the infallible expression of them except a verbal inspiration ”. 6 2 
God may have sometimes revealed Himself in audible speech, to 
the prophets for instance, but that the recording of that revelation 
was verbally inspired cannot be proved. Had God chosen, 
Bannerman argued, He could have used other means to effect His 
communication and it might be different from what it is. To affirm 
anything else is to limit God and to affirm too much. He concluded 
in a less than dogmatic fashion: “Verbal inspiration, as the method 
of the divine agency, is a doctrine which, if it cannot be affirmed to 
be false, can as little be affirmed to be true. If it does not run 
counter to anything found in Scripture, it is, we suspect, an 
explanation of the mystery which Scripture does not demand ”. 63 

Plainly Bannerman did not advocate the theory of verbal 
inspiration. At least he did not advocate the theory that “human 
language was the medium through which the Holy Spirit both 
revealed truth to the prophet and impowered him to speak with 
infallible accuracy ”. 64 He was very careful to distinguish between 
revelation and inspiration. He could speak freely therefore about the 
way he believed God had made Himself and His will known to men in 
the first instance (revelation) and at the same time refuse to venture 
any theory as to how that knowledge was transferred without error 
to the sacred page in the second (inspiration). Some of his 
colleagues were not as careful and so imply that the words God 
suggested to the authors of Scripture in inspiring them were also the 
means He used to reveal Himself to them. Thus Alexander Black, 
first professor of New Testatment in New College: “It is by words 
that we engage in the exercise of communion with God; it was by 
words that God communicated the knowledge of His will to men in 
the respective languages that He was pleased to employ for this 

61 Bannerman, Inspiration, 247. 

62 Ibid. 

63 Ibid., 248. 

64 Bibliotheca Sacra was perceptive enough to see that the theory of verbal 
inspiration that Bannerman rejected was the theory (re-)defined in this particular 
way. Bibliotheca Sacra, vol., xxii, 352. 


purpose ”. 65 Bannerman objected to the theory of verbal 
inspiration on the ground that, though it may have been the least 
ambiguous way of stating the Biblical doctrine of plenary 
inspiration, it was also a description of the method of inspiration 
which the Bible did not support . 66 

Whether or not he had disassociated himself from the older 
view is another matter. After all, it could be argued that Candlish’s 
interpretation of the creation narrative also constitutes defection. 
The differences between Bannerman and Cunningham, or between 
Bannerman and Candlish or Candlish and Cunningham, should 
not be seen as differences of opinion about the completeness or 
importance of Scripture and its inspiration. On that they were 
unanimous. Their real differences are of a subtler kind and show 
up only as each worked out separately his own argument in 
Scripture’s joint defence. 

Both Cunningham and Bannerman, for example, 
acknowledged the impropriety of declaring a priori that God could 
make His will known to men only through divinely inspired 
human language; but whereas Cunningham maintained that in fact 
He does, Bannerman argued that He does not — not always 
anyway. There is nothing above or beyond the words of Scripture 
that conveys to us authentically or authoritatively the will of God 
for our salvation, Cunningham proclaimed . 6 7 “The divine 
certainty and the divine authority of the doctrine given by God”, 
Bannerman declared to the contrary, “are no less infallible and 
absolute when they speak to us through the thought, in whatever 
way, truly presented to the mind, than when they speak through the 
words which have been selected as the medium in the original text 
for presenting it .” 6 8 

On the related question of errors in Scripture there was a similar 
harmony-disharmony. Bannerman and Cunningham agreed that 
such errors as existed were errors in the copies and not in the 
autographs, but they disagreed concerning the essential nature of 
the problem involved and the best way of solving it . 6 9 Cunningham 
saw it primarily as a matter of recovering the text in its primal 
integrity. He believed that although we have no guarantee that the 

65 Alexander Black, “The Exegetical Study of the Original Scriptures Considered 
in Connexion with the Training of Theological Students”, in a letter to the Rev. 
Thomas McCrie, Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1856), 
7. See also Cunningham, Lectures, 343ff, especially perhaps p. 346. 

66 But, as pointed out above p. 121, nearly all the protagonists disavowed any 
attempt to describe how the Bible was inspired. It is his finer distinctions, 
therefore, that separate Bannerman from his colleagues, not his views on the 
main issue. 

67 Cunningham, Lectures, 582. 

68 Bannerman, Inspiration, 520. 

69 Ibid., 5 1 3ff and Cunningham, Lectures, 525ff. 


word of God has been kept pure in any one manuscript or printed 
edition, nonetheless “God has preserved it in purity in his church, 
and has given to men sufficient materials, in due use of ordinary 
means, for obtaining a substantially accurate record of what he has 
revealed ”. 70 All this emphasized the need for a careful, impartial, 
and critical handling of Scripture . 71 Bannerman, on the other 
hand, though never discounting the need for diligent scholarship or 
mitigating the requirement for an inspired original, argued that 
“those two elements of plenary inspiration in which its distinctive 
character and importance consist — namely, infallible truth and 
divine authority — are not tied to certain forms of language, and do 
not exclusively reside in a mysterious selection of charmed 
words ”. 7 2 

The issue for Bannerman was less of language, original or 
translated, than of the nature of divine-human intercourse. “The 
thoughts of God in the revelation which He has granted”, he said, 
“are not to be identified with the mere expressions in Hebrew or 
Greek which convey them to our ears, as if they could not be 
conveyed otherwise ”. 7 3 

“Far beneath the surface of its language there is a well of 
truth springing up into everlasting life; and it needs but that 
we should draw from its depths, to learn that it is divine and 
unfathomable. The letter of the Scripture page, even though 
inspired by God, is not so deep as the mind of God that is 
beneath it ”. 74 

Given the differences between Cunningham and Bannerman on 
the manner of God’s revelation, there could hardly have been 
complete agreement between them on the intimately related matter 
of understanding it. To Cunningham’s “the written word must be 
at once our starting point and our goal”, Bannerman opposed, 
“what is stated in the shape of formal affirmation is little, 
compared with what is involved and implied in the words, without 
being expressly affirmed ”. 75 Cunningham asserted that the 
Scriptures have but one sense and that that one sense can be 
discovered only by investigating the literal and grammatical 
meaning of Scripture’s words exactly as they stand. Bannerman 
urged that “to rest contented with the words of inspired men, 
neglecting the fuller meaning beneath, or to require that, for every 
truth we receive as God’s truth, we should show proof that it is set 

70 perha^s 8 pp m 536 e 537 re5 ’ 5331 ^ a ' S ° ^ Wh ° le ° f Lecture xlii> in Particular 

71 Ibid., 600-601. 

72 Bannerman, Inspiration, 519. 

73 Ibid . , 520. 

74 Ibid., 583. 

75 Ibid. 


down expressly in so many terms in Scripture, is a practice 
condemned by many instances in the word of God ”. 76 

Much of this disagreement is explicable in the light of 
Bannerman’s insistence that history is the primary method of 
God’s disclosure. He referred to the sacred writers as “the 
historians of revelation ” 7 7 and observed that “the lessons that 
God has taught in His revelation were first written on the outward 
pages of history, and only afterwards written in the words and with 
the commentary and explanations of the Bible ”. 78 As with 
Robertson Smith (Bible history is “the story of God’s saving self- 
manifestation”), Christianity for Bannerman was “less a system of 
spiritual truths presented in abstract form, than a series of facts 
and examples exhibiting the manner in which God deals with the sin 
that he hates, and provides for the recovery of the sinner whom He 
pities ”. 79 Earlier on he had put it even more emphatically: “It is 
God’s method to reveal Himself by facts rather than by 
propositions; and ... in these supernatural events which have been 
wrought on the earth, and recorded in the Bible, there is a spiritual 
meaning as deep and true as is found even in the words ”. 80 In 
Bannerman’s view the historicity of Scripture precedes the fact that 
the Bible is inspired, rather than the other way around. “So 
thoroughly is revelation identified with Bible history,” he claimed, 
“that if the Bible be not historically true, it is a matter of no 
consequence whether it be inspired or not .” 8 1 

By his insistence on the essentially historical nature of God’s 
revelation, Bannerman took a harder, more traditional line on 
Genesis than did Candlish, whose commentary Drummond and 
Bulloch think “highly conservative ”. 8 2 Candlish, as already 
shown, held the creation account to be figurative, but Bannerman, 
this time in full agreement with Cunningham, maintained that it is 
historical and that its author, “the historian of Genesis”, got his 
information from God . 83 To deny its authenticity, Bannerman 

76 Ibid., 586. 

77 Ibid., 101. 

78 Ibid., 27. 

79 Ibid. , 25. The degree to which Smith echoed Bannerman on this particular point 
is remarkable: “The saving truth by believing which men are to become 
Christians has the form of history. 1 am not to be saved by believing some eternal 
truths about God. I must believe that my salvation is rendered possible only by 
the work of Christ which took place historically and among men.” “Christianity 
and the Supernatural” in Lectures and Essays of William Robertson Smith, edd. 
J. S. Black and George Chrystal (London, 1912), 121. 

80 Bannerman, Inspiration, 14. 

81 Ibid., 31. 

82 Drummond and Bulloch, The Church in Victorian Scotland, 1843-1874, 255. 

83 Bannerman, Inspiration, lb-11. “What reliance”, Cunningham asked, “could 
be placed upon an account of the creation of the world, and the important 
transactions connected with the origin of our race, by a man who lived 2,500 
years after they had taken place, unless God had directed him?” Lectures, 299. 









argued, would be, implicitly, to deny the possibility of a 
supernatural revelation. 

To say that God has revealed Himself pre-eminently in history 
is not necessarily to say that everything in the Bible that has the 
appearance of history is in fact history or that everything that is 
history is absolutely accurate in every detail; and there can be little 
doubt that although Bannerman agreed with Robertson Smith on 
the first he would have disagreed with him on both the other issues, 
and on much else besides, as any reading of Smith would show. 
What is important is that Bannerman agreed with Smith at all; and 
what is ironical is that it is his view of the historical character of 
God’s revelation, which generally separates him from 
Cunningham, that on the particular question of Genesis, brings 
him into agreement with Cunningham against Candlish whose 
spirit he seems more to share. 

Defending the doctrine of plenary inspiration was a much more 
sophisticated operation than simply believing it, more mined with 
complication and subtlety than even its staunchest proponents in 
the middle of last century could have known. Notions of 
considerable significance were exposed in the delicate task of 
clarifying the position they were thought to defend. The problem of 
defining the doctrine is a case in point. Verbal inspiration might 
mean simply that the influence of God extends to the choice of the 
actual words of Scripture; on the other hand it might also be taken 
to mean that God communicates with men solely or primarily by 
means of human language. If the latter meaning was understood 
then Bannerrnan’s finer distinctions challenged, in the longer run, 
not only the doctrine of verbal inspiration but the concept of 
Christian belief which supported it and depended upon it. For 
apprehending God in historical events, even if they are mediated 
through a written account, is a different thing from comprehending 
His will as He has expressed it in words, and the requirement for an 
absolutely accurate text exactly interpreted is modified to the extent 
that Christian belief is thought of as more like intuitive seeing or 
perceiving than rational understanding. 

The older position was not monolithic. Its essential character, 
and the intention of its defenders, are clear, but the very variety of 
the ways in which it was defended suggests that it was by no means 
free from ambiguities and differences of opinion. Upon the 
resolution of some of these ambiguities and differences, as the case 
of Bannerman perhaps best illustrates, fairly important issues 


If the various styles of Christian piety could be ordered on a 
kind of graph or spectrum, with objective/rational at one end and 


| D 

subjective/experimental at the other, there can be little difficulty 
deciding on which side of centre to plot mid-nineteenth century 
Scottish Evangelicalism. The word Calvinism suggests theology 
nearly as much as it does a particular type of theology, and 
Cunningham’s pregnant phrase “the Calvinism of the Word of 
God’’ characterizes a mood or an ethos as aptly as it does a system 
or a method. 84 The tone is decidedly doctrinal and cognitive as 
opposed to mystical and intuitive. 85 

The study of church history, to Cunningham’s mind, was most 
serviceable as an apologetic tool. In teaching it, he told the 
Assembly of 1845, he intended, first, to “give an historical 
exhibition of the various deviations which, in the course of eighteen 
centuries, had occurred from the truth laid down in the Holy 
Scriptures’’, and second, to “give a detailed view of the leading 
controversies which from time to time have agitated men’s minds, 
and which have exerted the greatest influence on belief and 
doctrine’’. 8 6 According to Rainy, Cunningham’s pupil, successor 
and biographer, the course bore the marks of Cunningham’s 
intent: “The charm of historic detail was necessarily sacrificed; the 
cross lights from human nature and experience faded away; the 
course became severe, and depended wholly on one great interest as 
its motive and justification”. 8 7 Cunningham’s method, Rainy 
said, was not merely to narrate a series of historical events, or even 
to explain how any one of them came to prominence: “It presses on 
at once to the practical and ultimate question in which the 
theologian is interested, viz., What is true?” 88 

Cunningham’s failure to distinguish between history and 
apologetics was due not so much to any confusion between them as 
to a more fundamental conviction about what truth is and how it is 

84 The history of the church, Cunningham claimed, shows that those who have held 
defective views of inspiration have very often held erroneous views of the central 
doctrines of Christianity. “There has generally been, though of course not 
without occasional exceptions, a remarkable parallelism or analogy between the 
soundness of men’s views upon the subject of inspiration and their general 
orthodoxy, or the correctness of their sentiments upon the leading principles of 
divine truth — a parallelism manifest through all the gradations of error, from 
German Rationalism, which is infidelity, up through Socinianism, Pelagianism, 
Arminianism, to truth, as exhibited in the Calvinism of the word of God”. 
Lectures, 407. 

85 This may be an important difference between Scottish and English 
evangelicalism. The evangelical movement in England, according to John 
Baillie, “had its own contribution to make towards the emergence of the 
romantic temper in that country”. (The Idea of Revelation in Recent Thought, 
12 ). 

86 As quoted in Robert Rainy, Life of William Cunningham (London, 1871), 

87 Ibid., 229. 

88 Ibid. It should also be kept in mind that Cunningham came to Church History 
from Apologetics. 


arrived at. It was reported to Cunningham that his appointment to 
the History post had been opposed by some on the ground that he 
had no imagination. His response: “Don’t you think a want of 
imagination is rather a good feature in a historian? K ' Truth, 
historical or theological, was not the yield of imaginative but rather 
of rational processes and church history was handmaid to 
systematic theology. The same unspeculating insistence on 
dogmatic certainty and consistency had earlier governed 
Cunningham’s handling of Scripture and the doctrine of 
inspiration. Severely technical as his method was, it was never fully 
critical. It was not allowed to breach or even to test the boundaries 
of his theological system . 90 

Candlish encouraged more daring. “The advocates oi 
inspiration — even of verbal inspiration — ” he declared in his 
examination of F. D. Maurice’s Essays “have no objection 
whatever to cast the Bible unreservedly into the crucible of 
exegetical and antiquarian analysis; and they are not careful though 
the result should be, along with the explanation of many old 
puzzles, the raising of some new ones ”. 91 The defenders and 
expounders of revelation will be listened to, he said elsewhere, 
provided thoughtful men understand that they have no intention of 
putting down inquiry by the mere assertion of authority or 
imputation of heresy. “Let them see that we face the question in a 
very different spirit”, he proclaimed, “that we have something of 
the Baconian as well as the dogmatic mind in us .” 9 -’ But Candlish 
may be the best illustration of the evils that beset those who 
attempt, seriously and more or less fearlessly, to be open in 
intellectually unsettled times. His appreciation of science, modified 
by his aptitude for dogma, sometimes produced answers to 
questions about inspiration that, rather than preclude further 
inquiry, tend to invite it. As for imagination, it is precisely in 
Candlish’s occasional reliance on it — often the most winsome 
though not the most cogent sections of his argument — that he loses 
his way and comes nearest the subjectivism he eschews but cannot 

Even the attempt to say no more on Scripture’s behalf than the 
Scriptures themselves say was not without its complications. That 

89 Ibid., 225. 

90 To do him justice, Cunningham was never merely rational. Although his 
approach to the Bible and Christian belief is almost always described in terms 
that are more cerebral than those of the other protagonists, he insisted as much 
as any of them that no effective knowledge of God’s word could be had without 
the aid of the Holy Spirit and that the essential thing about any view of 
inspiration is that it should lead those who hold it to submit themselves to 
Scripture’s authority. See Lectures, 559 and 407-408. 

91 Robert S. Candlish, Examination of Mr Maurice's Theological Essays (London, 
1845), 386. 

92 Christianity and Recent Speculations, p. vii. 


Bannerman’s 588 pages should be considered both a defence of the 
more rigid doctrine of inspiration and a preparation for higher 
criticism is perhaps the evidence. No one could mistake the 
intention of Bannerman’s book; not everyone was able to see its 
implications. 9 3 And in Bannerman too, perhaps more than in 
Candlish, there are sporadic outbreaks of the intuitive or 
experiential, the activity of a kind of spiritual fifth column, never 
to be completely subdued in even the most rationally inclined of 
religious men and debate. 

The encounter with what Candlish pejoratively referred to as 
“theological science” drew out the doctrine of plenary inspiration, 
stretched it and thinned it as it forced it to come to terms with itself, 
thus exposing its weaknesses as well as demonstrating its strengths. 
More precisely, it was perhaps not the doctrine but the defence of 
the doctrine which was tested; and in the process the doctrine itself 
was sometimes transmuted. Again Bannerman is the primary case 
in point: he felt, apparently, that he had to jettison verbal 
inspiration in order to save plenary inspiration, which meant giving 
the traditional position a different character altogether. 9 

There were only a few tactical options open to the 
traditionalists. One was simply to repudiate the hostile forces, to 
argue that the battle was pre-eminently spiritual, that the truth 
could be seen only by the eye of faith and probably never 
completely in this life. The other was to engage them, to contest 
every issue on its own ground, answering blow for blow, and 
sometimes allowing one’s position to be vulnerable or even 
modifiable in order to secure its defence. The traditionalists took 
both options. Their spirituality required that they take the first, 
their rationality required that they take the second. But insofar as 
they took the second they admitted that criticism was with them, it 
only as an evil to be checked. In other words they joined the battle. 
Perhaps neither their faith not their theology would allow them to 
do otherwise. But the defence of the doctrine of inspiration itself 
proved to be a double-edged sword. Believing may have fostered 
believing criticism. 

93 The Christian Treasury welcomed it as “a standard work capable of res ' stl "? 
combined attack which infidelity and scepticism may hurl against the divine 
inspiration of the Scriptures”, and The British and Foreign 

claimed that it “contains incomparably the most systematic and complet 
discussion of the great question of the inspiration of Holy Scripture which h 

vet been presented to the Christian Church • , 

94 “And this indeed, is the peculiar character of the doctrine, that you cannot 
diminish or qualifi bin you reverse it.” Coleridge. Aids ,o Rt/leco* snd t he 
Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit, 318.